Myanmar’s war on drugs has impoverished thousands of former opium-growing farmers who cannot sell their cash crops due to curbs imposed by the military junta, a U.N. official said on Tuesday.

Myanmar, the world’s number two supplier of illicit opium after Afghanistan last year, has seen a dramatic fall in opium cultivation in recent years as a result of an anti-drugs campaign applauded by the West.

But for farmers forced to stop growing opium, the raw material for heroin, the switch to cash crops has slashed incomes by up to 70 percent because restrictions on movement stop their products from getting to market.

“What is the point of these people being assisted to grow cash crops if they do not have market access?” Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told reporters in Bangkok after a four-day visit to the former Burma.

“Their buying power is about nil because of the lack of access. Before they were able to use money to buy food,” said Sisulu, a veteran South African diplomat.

The UN food agency feeds about 596,000 people in Myanmar, of whom 180,000 live in the poppy-growing Northern Shan State along Myanmar’s border with China.

Myanmar, Laos and Thailand form the infamous drug-producing region known as the “Golden Triangle”, but opium output has dropped off as governments and international agencies press farmers to switch crops.

The popularity of amphetamine-type stimulants produced in the region has also replaced heroin as the drug of choice in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

CALL FOR MORE AID

When Yangon banned poppy cultivation in 2002, farming families were forced to change a centuries-old way of life. The number of people involved in growing opium in Northern Shan State dropped to 350,000 last year from 440,000 in 2002.

Sisulu met senior government ministers during her visit, but did not get a commitment that restrictions on trade and the movement of crops would be lifted.

“I told government officials the policies of government were in fact impoverishing these people,” Sisulu said.

“They cannot market their crops outside the Shan State. I heard a story that one farmer who could not sell his crop ended up feeding it to his pigs,” she said.

The Myanmar Times newspaper said on Monday that a new survey showed opium cultivation in Myanmar fell by 34 percent during the last growing season to 30,888 hectares.

It quoted Police Colonel Hkam Aung as saying the international community should do more to help former opium farmers who have lost incomes.

The WFP has been operating in Myanmar since 1994 when it began feeding some 230,000 refugees in North Rakhine State who returned from neighbouring Bangladesh.

It began providing food relief in Northern Shan State in October 2003, and also assists some 400 families stricken by HIV/AIDS in central Myanmar.